Review: Unquiet Slumbers – The Haunting of Emily Brontë (Different Theatre)

Currently available to rent on Sweetstream, Different Theatre return to the topic of women of literature in this meeting of minds between the author Emily Brontë and her creation from Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw Linton.

As Unquiet Slumbers: The Haunting of Emily Brontë begins, a piano is heard, then strings, as Emily retires to sleep. What follows is part dream, part hallucination, part mental disorder, part creativity.

Catherine, although a spirit, has not quietened in death, or lost her lust for wandering through the wild moors. She wishes to feel her feet sinking into the ground once more, but can only half-experience what is around her. She has returned to the woman who conjured her onto the page through the window, from the kirkyard with its fir tree.

Promotional image for Unquiet Slumbers

These women are so similar they can be cut from the same cloth. Both berate the other: Emily feels Catherine’s “fractured mind infects my own”; Catherine tells Emily she has “remade me in the image of your dreams”. A mirror is used to emphasise their common traits, their wildness and stubborness.

A distortion of sound takes us deep into Emily’s sleeping state, where we are unwanted and unquiet observers. Catherine moves around much more than her writer, feeling lost by the character she was shackled into, that “there is no goodness” in her.

They speak of dominant and destructive men. Of Heathcliff, who sought to possess Catherine but who closed his window against her ghost night after night. Of Branwell, Emily’s drunken brother who threw away his gifts for dissolution.

These women could have been friends in another time, another place. Death has affected both of them. Catherine speaks of the decay of her own body, becoming a part of the moor’s hawthorn, moss, and bog water. This passage is deeply poetic yet unsettling in its frankness. Emily speaks of family losses (“so many that I have loved are sleeping now”), and we witness her own physical frailty.

Harriet Hutchinson as Emily in Unquiet Slumbers

There is no “romance, nor power” in death, says Catherine. It feels an accusation, almost, to the Gothic romanticism of Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff’s strange obsession. Phrases from the book itself come through in memory as Unquiet Slumbers progresses.

Sam Chittenden writes and directs this piece which will of course be valuable to Brontë devotees, but also to those who like plays which place strong women front and centre, and those which explore the way fictional characters can bring out the best and worst of their writers.

Harriet Hutchinson and Rebecca Jones bring a sense of Yorkshire grit and of the lack of freedom for nineteenth-century women to their roles as Emily and Catherine. Here, in Emily’s room, austere and cold, they can speak freely, but the world may not allow it.

There is a bleakness about Unquiet Slumbers that briefly lifts in the play’s last few moments, but we know the real story, that Emily will never write another novel and will be dead by thirty, following three sisters, mother and brother to an early grave. And that Catherine, despite her rap at this window, will lose her soul and her being when Emily’s pen is put aside for the final time and she closes her eyes for ever.

You can rent Unquiet Slumbers: The Haunting of Emily Brontë here.

My thanks to Sam Chittenden for providing access to this show for review.

Check out my reviews of Sary and In Plain Sight, also by Different Theatre.